Given the potential for a catastrophic conflict in Syria with regional consequences the international community’s primary effort must be to bring about an end to current fighting. Simultaneously, it should assist with the establishment of a political process that allows Syria’s various protagonists to achieve a compromise solution to their competing ambitions without resort to violence. This is a complex task made more difficult by the way most foreign governments have ostracized their Syrian counterpart. How they expect to positively influence Assad whilst calling for his removal and severing diplomatic links with Syria is unclear. In contrast, it is evident that this isolating approach has not worked.
Progress Through Radical Change?
To facilitate peace in a hypothetical scenario where two unequal sides are fighting and neither separating the combatants nor disarming the stronger enemy is possible, the most rational approach is to stop the weaker combatant from fighting. If the international community genuinely wishes to contain the crisis in Syria it has to be brave enough to consider how to apply this generic solution to Syria. Crucially, this does not mean that it abandons the Syrian opposition but that it commits fully to achieving change in Syria through non-violent means. This requires a radical overhaul of the approach followed by the UK and many other governments thus far. Progressive departures from current policy should include:
- Clearly articulating the primacy of a political solution in Syria and eschewing any suggestion that foreign states are willing to intervene militarily in the crisis. The present policy ambiguity is unhelpful. The determination to promote peace must include halting the provision of material that could sustain or enhance the ability of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to fight. The prospect of foreign assistance is a fundamental factor in the FSA’s strategic calculations and its ambitions. Dual, conflicting messages from foreign governments that speak of peace but encourage war must cease. Hopes of a foreign-supported armed insurrection in Syria must be scotched to cultivate a reliance on political activity.
- Encouraging the Syrian National Council (SNC) to begin negotiations with the Syrian government. By rushing to oppose Assad the UK, US and others endorsed the largely émigré SNC despite its internal divisions, lack of authority in Syria and limited control over the armed groups fighting Assad. By doing so they nailed their colors to the mast of a ship that isn’t seaworthy. The SNC has previously rejected dialogue with Assad on the grounds a prisoner cannot negotiate with his torturer. This is a fundamental mistake. In such an unequal relationship negotiation is the only way the victim can begin to address the extreme imbalance in power. The SNC’s reluctance to talk with Assad’s regime leaves it impotent and largely irrelevant. Foreign governments should insist the SNC seeks dialogue with the Syrian regime or withdraw their support for it. The opposition in Syria needs a political body that offers a credible alternative to local violent groups so concerted international efforts are needed to make the SNC politically relevant. Talking, not fighting, has to be seen as the best approach in Syria, and the SNC should be made to promote that judgment.
- Being prepared to use less coercion and more persuasion. If the Assad regime is zealous to hold on to power or genuinely believes it is facing an existential threat then external coercion will not override its sense of survival and is ineffectual. It may even reinforce a determination to fight and endure. Coercion is a process, not a step, and the international community’s ability to coerce Assad is weakened by clear limits to foreign appetite for military intervention. If the Syrian regime cannot be made to change its behavior then alternative efforts should be made to persuade it to adopt a moderate approach to popular opposition. This requires better communication and engagement with Damascus meaning some states will have to repair their diplomatic relationship with Syria and cease openly threatening Assad with criminal action. The prize (regional peace and stability) is so important that consideration should also be given to what positive incentives might be used to moderate Damascus’s behavior. Objections that exploring "carrots" effectively rewards brutality should be countered by the value of the prize and the fact that hitherto ‘sticks‘ have proved ineffective. The hard reality is that the lesser of two evils may produce the necessary outcome.
Eating Humble Pie
Where sentiment, not logic, is shaping reaction to Syrian bloodshed caution is required. A fresh attitude that doesn’t simply demonize Assad and canonize the FSA is needed, as is an objective approach which recognizes that both sides are contributing to the violence and that each must be treated to robust analysis. If the road to lasting peace and political progress in Syria involves dealing with the SNC, FSA and Assad’s regime in radically different ways, will the UK, US and European governments be willing to take that path? The answer to that question may determine whether there is anything we can do to stop the killing in Syria.
Read a longer version of this article at R3I Consulting.
Paul Smyth has 30 years' association with the defense arena, as a military officer and later as a Head of Program at the Royal United Services Institute. He is currently the owner of R3I Consulting.